Is Oedipus The True Tragic Hero
In his Poetics, Aristotle defined the term tragedy’ as a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity, but by some error in judgement the change in the hero’s fortune must not be from misery to happiness, but on the contrary, from happiness to misery’. From this definition, he further expanded it by defining the profile of the Classical Greek tragic hero, basing it on what he considered the best tragedy ever written, Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex. He felt that a tragedy should comprise of the hero’s goodness and superiority, a tragic flaw in which the hero makes fatal errors in judgement which eventually lead to his downfall, a tragic realisation in which the main character understand how he has unwittingly helped to bring about his own destruction and the absence of freewill in the tragic hero’s life.
Oedipus was a good ruler: just, compassionate and sympathetic. When the priests of Thebes approached him, pleading for help on behalf of the people of Thebes who were suffering from death and famine. Oedipus immediately agreed and promised them that he would do his best in solving the problems, saying that his heart bore the weight of his own’ and all of his people’s sorrows’. He promised to bring everything to light’. Oedipus was also a filial son. When he first learnt about the prophecy in Corinth, he was unwilling to stay and left immediately, in case circumstances would ever lead him to kill the King and marry the Queen of Corinth, whom he had then thought of as his natural parents.
Oedipus’ superiority was also evident in the play, not only through his ranking of the king of Thebes, which automatically placed him far above the nobles, priests and common people, but also through his intelligence. When the Sphinx plagued’ the city by blocking the city gates and eating those who could not answer its riddle, which was “what is it that goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at midday, and three feet in the evening?” Oedipus was the only person able to chase the Sphinx away with the correct answer of man’. This led to him becoming the king of Thebes which in turn led to his superiority of ranking.
However, Oedipus was not a perfect man. His tragic flaw was that of stubbornness, impulsiveness and most of all, his grandiosity (which can be seen when a person admires himself, his qualities, such as beauty, cleverness, and talents, and his success and achievements greatly). When he left Corinth, he met an entourage on the way to Thebes. There, the leader’ of the horse-drawn carriage ordered him out of the way’. Oedipus lost his temper and killed everyone in the entourage due to his impulsiveness and foolishness, which led to his being crowned King and ultimately, to his downfall.
When Oedipus was later crowned King of Thebes and was thus obliged to find’ the killer of the former King Lauis in order to save his people from suffering, he invited the renowned blind prophet Teiresias to Thebes to reveal the truth of the mystery that surrounded Lauis’ death. Although reluctant at first, he finally revealed that it was in fact Oedipus who had killed King Lauis. Oedipus did not believe him and insulted him, calling him names like insolent scoundrel’. His pride refused to let him believe that he had in actual fact done wrong by killing his father. His grandiosity blinded him while he was seeking King Lauis’ killer. He felt that he had nothing to lose and persisted in bringing bringing the truth to light, disregarding the warnings of Jocasta, his wife and mother.
All these errors in judgement he had made led to his eventual downfall, where he finally realised that he had unwittingly fulfilled Apollo’s oracle and sealed his destiny by leaving Corinth and killing King Lauis, answering the Sphinx’s riddle correctly and thus becoming the king of Thebes and also through his pursuit of the truth of King Lauis’ death.
Oedipus also had no freewill. He had absolutely no say in his life. When he was born, Apollo’s oracle predicted that he would kill his father and marry his mother, to which his parents decided to abandon him on the mountain-side and leave him die. However, fate intervened and Oedipus soon found himself being adopted by the King and Queen of Corinth. After leaving Corinth when he found out that the King and Queen were not his natural parents, he solved the Sphinx’s riddle and became the successor of King Lauis as the King of Thebes. When the gods could no longer brrok in silence the affront of Oedipus’s unwitting sins’, they punished the city by sending plague and famine upon the city. When approached by the priests, Oedipus could only promise them his help, which started off the chain of events, eventually leading to his knowledge of his sins and his downfall. However, he could not have done anything else. It is highly unlikely that he would ignore his people’s pleas for help, which would then have led to his unpopularity and again, his downfall. When Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx, he could not have known that he would end up marrying his own mother. When he met King Lauis, he could not have known that he had killed his own father. Whichever way you look at him, Oedipus had no free will- simply because he did not realise the consequences of his actions because he had no knowledge of the significance of everything he did. He did the best he could as a ruler, son and husband but was still played out in the end.
Although Oedipus did make certain errors in judgement which led to his downfall, he was not particularly devious or evil and had not really harmed anyone prior to the killing of King Lauis. His outcome did not arise from any particular bad deed which he had done and he basically did not do anything to deserve such a tragic ending, when he discovers that he had killed his father and committed incest with his mother and finally loses everything he has had before. Aristotle’s view also comprises that of the hero’s fortune changing from happiness to misery and not the other way round. Oedipus lived a blissful, happy and contented life. Being the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, he would have lived a life of luxury. He later solved the Sphinx’s riddle, causing him to be crowned king of Thebes, where he married Jocasta and had a son and a daughter with her. He was happy, but all that changed when the gods could not tolerate the sins he had committed, however unknowingly, and demanded that Oedipus find Lauis’ killer. This sparked off a whole chain of events which led to Oedipus finding out the truth, Jocasta killing herself, Oedipus blinding himself and finally leaving Thebes. The man who once was envied and respected was now an outcast, despised and hated.
A tragedy must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in itself. In other words, the story must be realistic and narrow in focus. A good tragedy would evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to experience a feeling of catharsis. Catharsis, a Greek word in origin, means “purgation” or “purification”. Running through the gamut of these strong emotions would leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that “a good cry” would make a person feel better. Oedipus Rex is a perfect example of what Aristotle meant by a tragedy. It talks about a man who has no say in what path his life would take, a man who once had everything. He was a king, a good husband and father, a man contented with his lot in life who eventually lost his status, wife, children and home. He evokes sympathy simply because he was not evil or foolish, just human and fallible.